Wednesday, September 24, 2014

1001 Ways to Wreck a Story - Part Six

The “Swallow-An-Elephant” Story

Sherry, here, with another way NOT to wreck a story. Every story asks the reader to suspend his or her disbelief to a certain extent—to willingly enter into the world of the story and accept its context for the duration of the tale. However, some stories ask or expect too much. That’s the “swallow-an-elephant” story.

The Problem
This story problem asks the reader to accept something they simply cannot. This is not a problem of genre—it’s entirely reasonable to ask a reader to accept the existence of magic, vampires, FTL travel, or other things that don’t exist in what we fondly think of as “the real world” if that’s the genre in which the story is written. The reader should come to the genre story with those expectations—in that case the onus is on them to be prepared for what they will find in the pages of the story.

No, this problem presents the reader with something far more challenging. It’s usually an aspect of the world or plot that:

- is not properly explained so that the reader can accept it

- does not make sense within the context of the story

- brings in story elements without proper setup

- requires all the characters to be complete idiots in order for it to work

The Fix
Depending on the particular flavour of the problem, the fix can entail a few different things. Sometimes you, as the author, need to bounce the idea around with some trusted readers or friends. “Does this make sense to you?” “Would you buy into a world where...” “Could you believe that the characters would do this?” Ask them to be honest. Maybe it all makes sense to you, because you know the one crucial element that makes it make sense—but you’ve failed to share that with your readers.

You may need to look at the elements of your story to make sure that you’ve set up what’s necessary for those aspects of the plot to be believable. Why would a government allow a particular practice? Why would experimenters deem a certain procedure acceptable? Why wouldn’t characters have seen a certain event coming, and prepared for it? Your problem might be in the setup at the beginning of the story, or in the way a problem is solved at the end, or anywhere else along the way. Everything needs to make sense within the context of the world and the story you’ve built.

And finally, does the story only work if your characters are completely blind to consequences, lacking in common sense, or making inexplicable choices? If so, you need to fix something. Readers usually won’t cut your characters a break or root for them to succeed if they’re only in trouble because of their own incompetence.

Don’t ask your readers to swallow an elephant. It’s simply too much work for them, and they’ll soon turn to something less challenging.

Photo Credit: SpencerCarbone

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